Clinton and Fiorina push no-fly zone for Syria. Really?

Both the Democratic front-runner and the Republican rising star think the US should declare and enforce a no-fly zone in Syria. Military experts say it could set up a showdown with Russia that would be best to avoid.

Brian Snyder/Reuters, Charlie Neibergall/AP
Both the Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton and Republican rising star Carly Fiorina (r.) think the US should declare and enforce a no-fly zone in Syria.

Here’s a surprise – Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton and Republican rising star Carly Fiorina agree on something big. Both think the US should declare and enforce a no-fly zone in Syria to protect civilians and US-backed rebel fighters.

Former Secretary of State Clinton’s pronouncement on this emphasized its humanitarian aspects. “I personally would be advocating now for a no-fly zone and humanitarian corridors to try to stop the carnage on the ground and from the air,” she said in an interview with WHDH TV in Boston.

Former Hewlett Packard CEO Fiorina’s words on the subject were more about fighting. She told Fox News’s Sean Hannity that the US needs to secure a no-fly zone around US-backed anti-Assad rebel forces.

“This is a tricky maneuver, it’s a dangerous maneuver, but it’s a maneuver we must undertake,” said Fiorina.

Here’s the problem: Russian warplanes are now based in Syria and flying sorties through Syrian airspace to bomb opponents of Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad. The US isn’t happy about that, and it’s made the military situation there a lot more volatile. It’s also made the issue of the no-fly zone more problematic.

Sure, calling for a no-fly zone is an easy way for a presidential candidate to differentiate themselves from the White House (the administration has long rejected the idea). It makes you look tougher and more forceful than the folks currently running US foreign policy, perhaps.

That’s one reason why other GOP hopefuls have pushed no-fly zones in the past.

But a unilaterally-declared Syrian no-fly zone could pull US aircraft into actual shooting combat with forces from the only other country that possesses more than a thousand nuclear warheads. That’s a situation lots of military experts think is, ah, best to avoid.

It’s true that the ladder of nuclear escalation is a long one, or at least longer now than it was during the cold war. But why put your foot on even the first step of that ladder if you can avoid it.

The presence of Russian aircraft in Syria “creates a major potential barrier to US or allied no-fly zones in Syria and forces every rebel faction to consider the risk of engaging Russia,” wrote Anthony Cordesman, long-time military and strategy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, earlier this week.

Some political analysts were blunter. Calling for a no-fly zone in Syria at the moment “seems like a borderline nutty overcorrection to Obama’s passivity,” writes Allahpundit at the right-leaning Hot Air site.

Of course, the US could work with Russia to enforce a no-fly zone, theoretically, if they could work that out.  But that’s a development that seems quite unlikely at the moment.

Clinton’s statement on the no-fly idea doesn’t address the Russia question directly. Fiorina’s does. Asked by Hannity if the US might need to use force against Russian aircraft, she said, “If it does come to that, I think we must be prepared.”

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